The Myriad Lives of a Maker

by Sarah Evans,

  • Will Nickerson
    Will Nickerson '16 writes out a problem in the mathematics hearth in Ford Hall. His love for problem-solving led him to choose mathematics as one of his majors.
  • Will Nickerson
    Nickerson rediscovered his love for poetry at Willamette, and published several of his poems in the campus literary journal.

It’s hard to encompass all that Will Nickerson ’16 does in a simple word or phrase — he’s a poet, a mathematician, a student of Spanish literature, a music fan and creator, an admission tour guide, an aspiring entrepreneur.

But if you ask him what he wants to bring most to the world, he defines it this way: he makes things.

“I want to make something that will have a tangibly good impact on people’s lives,” he says. “And it doesn’t have to be a physical product, either — it could be a piece of music I create or a poem I write, really anything that I think other people are going to enjoy.”

It’s an apt way to describe his varied pursuits, many of which he unexpectedly discovered at Willamette. The senior from Albany, California, turned two of these pursuits into his majors — Spanish and mathematics — but he also crammed every free hour with explorations of personal passions. You’re as likely to find him lifting weights at Sparks Athletic Center (he is a fitness and nutrition fanatic) as tinkering in Ford Hall’s recording studio or reading his poems at an informal open-mic at a friend’s house.

If you happen to see Nickerson while he’s leading a campus tour, you might hear him describe his experiences to prospective students and parents as such: “Willamette gives you the opportunity to explore such a wide breadth of academic fields that it’s pretty much impossible to not find something you’re really passionate about.”

And, he would add, “In high school, if you’re really into your student organization, it’s weird, but here, everyone is really supportive of you wanting to do your thing on campus.”

Making His Mark

That ethos first attracted Nickerson to Willamette. He recalls a pivotal evening stroll around campus during his prospective student visit. As he passed Ford, a group of debaters outside saw his visit folder and flagged him down to see if he had questions. Around the corner at the Montag Center, members of a film club invited him to come inside and watch a movie. No wonder he says, “I got the sense that this was a really integrated, tight-knit and involved community.”

Nickerson enrolled the next fall and quickly gravitated toward the mathematics department. While he excelled in his calculation-based high school math classes, he preferred the problem-solving nature of his courses at Willamette. During his sophomore year linear algebra class, he and a classmate tackled a research project on fractals and chaos theory. “It was way over our heads,” he says. “But it was the first time where I felt like I was breaking ground that was new for me with something outside of a course. I realized there was a lot you could do outside of the math textbook.”

That same year, Nickerson enrolled in an introduction to poetry writing course with visiting assistant professor Stephanie Lenox. “That’s one of the most memorable courses I’ve taken here at Willamette,” he says. “I hadn’t written a poem for like 15 years. I didn’t take any opportunities in high school to use the creative writing part of my brain. That class really jump-started me.”

Going on to take at least one English or literature class each semester, he wrote all along the way, often shared his work at student poetry slams or open mics, and eventually had three poems published in Willamette’s student literary journal, The Chrysalis (now called The Mill).

During his time on campus, Nickerson has continually expanded the scope of things he makes. He helps organize the student-run Wulapalooza art and music festival; he is part of a group working to re-establish a Willamette chapter of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity; and he once tried (unsuccessfully) to bring an FM radio frequency to campus.

“Will embraces the liberal arts approach with his own thinking and problem-solving, and by getting involved in many different programs and activities that further shape his perspective,” says Campus Recreation director Bryan Schmidt, who first met Nickerson during the Steppin’ Out pre-orientation program. “He influences others around him just by attacking each day with a positive, can-do attitude. That attitude has made it easy for him to have a big impact on the small community at Willamette.”

A Lifelong Explorer

As Nickerson ponders his next adventure after Willamette, he hopes to add yet another item to his maker arsenal: cricket protein. While studying in Granada, Spain, last fall, he had an enlightening conversation with another exchange student about consuming insects as an alternate form of protein — and the potential environmental and economic benefits versus raising and eating beef.

It got Nickerson thinking: could he make a nutrition product, such as protein powder, out of crickets? He’s currently interning for a small start-up in Portland that turns bugs into culinary products as he tries to learn the ropes of what it might be like to open his own business.

The idea of taking on yet another new venture doesn’t faze Nickerson at all. Being unafraid to explore — and making the time to do so — is one of the greatest lessons he’s learned at Willamette.

“It would be cliché to say this was the fastest four years of my life, but there’s constantly so much going on here at Willamette — it’s not that you never get a moment to breathe, but it’s almost like you don’t want a moment to breathe,” he says. “I feel like I’m constantly going from one place to the next, but the next place is always somewhere I want to be.”